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The Steerswoman's Road Paperback – July 1, 2003

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The steerswoman centered her chart on the table and anchored the corners around. A candlestick, a worn leatherbound book, an empty mug, and her own left hand held the curling parchment flat. The lines on the paper seemed to be of varying ages, the ones toward the center drawn with cracked, browning ink, those nearer the edges sharp and black. Extent of detail also showed progression. A large body of water, labeled "Inland Sea," dominated the central portion. The northern shore was depicted with painstaking precision. Farther north and farther east lines became more general, and there was a broad blank space on the right-hand side of the map.

The innkeeper regarded the woman a moment, then turned his attention to the chart. "Ah, look at that, now, all laid out just like we were birds and all." He tilted his head for a better vantage. "Here we are, then." He placed a chubby finger down on the parchment, on a spot north and east of the sea, midway between precision and vagueness. "Here's this very crossroads, see, and the town, and the tavern itself." The last was not depicted. The steerswoman made no comment.

The finger moved northeast, leaving a faint, damp mark. "There, that's where me and my brothers used to live. Right there; I know that river, see."

"And that's where you found the jewel," Rowan the steerswoman said.

"Yes, lady, that's right. Felling trees, these great big ones here." With a sweep of his arm he indicated a vast supporting beam visible in the ceiling of the narrow sitting room. "There we were, cutting these great things down--they did the worst of it, I'm not so strong as my brothers." The innkeeper was an immense square block of a man, of the sort whose padding generally concealed considerable muscle. "So I spot this smaller one, more in my range, like. And I heave back my axe, give it one great bash--and there it was."

Rowan reached across the table and picked up the object that lay there, an irregular lump of wood about the size of her two fists. As she turned it over in her hands, something glinted inside the hollows and depressions carved into its surface: rich colors that fractured and shifted as the light shifted, opalescent--now blue-black, now sky-blue, now a flash of purple, recalling amethyst. The surface was laced with tiny veins of silver. Rowan touched one of the visible faces and found it perfectly smooth, far smoother than a jeweler could have cut it, and with a faintly oily feel.

Putting the object down on the chart, she reached into the neck of her blouse and drew out a small pouch, hung by a leather cord. She slipped the cord over her head, opened the pouch, and slid its contents out onto the table.

The innkeeper smiled. "Ah, you've got one, too, though not so large and fine as mine." He picked up the blue shard, about half the size of the thumb he rubbed across it. "Oh, it's the same, yes." But it seemed less a jewel than a slice of a jewel. It was flat and thin as a knife blade. Only one surface showed, the other sheathed in some rough-textured, silver-colored metal, as if it had been pulled from or broken from a setting.

The steerswoman made a vague gesture. "We can't tell how large yours is, imbedded in wood. All the others I've seen are like my own, small and one-sided. I suspect that what you have is actually several jewels, nestled together." She turned back to the map. "Can you recall which side of the tree it was found in?"

He was surprised. "Side? No side, lady. It was inside like I said."

"Yes, but wasn't it closer to one side than the other?" She tapped the object. "It wasn't directly in the center, or the pattern of the grain would run around it in a circle. It was off-center. I need to know in what direction."

"Ten years back? Who can tell one side of a tree from another, ten years back?"

Rowan leaned back in her chair, contemplating a moment. She was an unprepossessing figure, of average height, and of average build for her height. Her traveling clothes, a rough linen blouse and trousers, were dusty and perhaps a bit tattered. Her hair, cut short for convenience, was the color of dark wet sand, save where the sun had bleached pale streaks. She possessed no outstanding beauty, and yet her face fascinated, not by any great perfection of feature but by its intelligent, constantly shifting expression. It seemed as if the actions of her mind were immediately reflected on her face, giving her a strange air, part vulnerability, part arrogance. One could not tell if she was helplessly incapable of guile, or if she simply considered it beneath her.

"The jewel showed at the first strike of your axe?" she asked the innkeeper.

"Yes, lady."

"Which way were you facing? Were there landmarks about? What did you see?"

"See?" He was blank a moment, searching his memory; then his face lit up. "I saw the Eastern Guidestar. The sun was just setting, see, the stars just showing, and as I get ready to swing, I look up and see the Eastern Guidestar shining through the branches like an omen. I remember thinking that."

Rowan laughed, slapped her hand down on the table, and rose.

"Does that tell you something, lady?"

"Indeed it does." She had gone to where her pack lay against an armchair, and was opening her tubular map case. She pulled out another chart, smaller than the first, and brought it back to the table. "Here." She pushed the lump to one side and spread the new chart on top of the first. "Do you see that this is a more detailed map of this small area?" She indicated the land around his finger-smudge.

"Yes . . ."

She nodded. "Here's the river, as you said, and it must have been around here that you felled the tree."

He squinted along her finger. "Could be, yes . . ."

"Were there any other landmarks? What did you pass on the way there?"

"We crossed a brook. . . ."

"Could it be this one?" With a series of questions she narrowed the possibilities until both she and the innkeeper were satisfied. She marked the position with a small star. Next she questioned him closely about the terrain and the other types of vegetation nearby, adding symbols and notes. At last she said, "And you were facing the Eastern Guidestar, which is southeast from there," and drew a small arrow by the star, pointing southeast. The innkeeper saw that there were perhaps a dozen such stars on the map, three of them accompanied by arrows. All the arrows pointed southeast.

The steerswoman picked up the wooden shape again, giving her attention not to the jewels but to the wood itself. She ran her fingernail lightly along the grain. "Did you use the tree that held this in constructing any part of this building?"

"Why, yes. The great mantelpiece over the fireplace in the common room."

She tossed the lump to him. "Show me." The terse command was tempered by her evident delight. The innkeeper could not imagine why the prospect of examining a mantelpiece would please her so. He led her down the short paneled corridor, passing a wide-eyed chambermaid who hastened to get out of their way, either out of respect for her master, or for the woman who followed him.

The common room was a wide low chamber that ran the entire length of the inn. In the far corner, a door led to the kitchen and service area, with kegs of various brews and wines nearby. Rowan and the innkeeper entered from another door in the same wall. A massive fieldstone fireplace filled the area between the two doors. The opposite wall held the entrance and a rank of windows, all flung open to admit the weak spring sunlight. As an attempt to dispel the native gloom of the chamber, this was a failure, and only served to offset the dark comradely warmth that prevailed.

The confluence of several bands of travelers had provided the inn with a crowd of surprising size. In one corner, a caravan guide was regaling a merchant who had three lovely young companions--daughters, by the merchant's evident disapproval of their bright-eyed attentiveness. Nearby, some of the other caravan members were conversing with five soldiers in red surcoats, apparently in the service of some or another wizard currently aligned with the Red. Close by the fire, a group of pilgrims were receiving an impromptu lecture from their leader; a local wag stood close behind his chair, parodying the man's pontifical gestures and expressions, while the pilgrims watched in a dumbfounded fascination that the unknowing leader seemed to attribute to his own rhetorical brilliance.

Far to the left of that group, Rowan identified a band of no less than a full dozen Outskirters. War-band size, she realized with some concern. But they seemed, at the moment, cheerful and unthreatening, oblivious to the ring of silent watchfulness around them, a ring that was slowly being frayed by the friendly, the brave, and the simply curious.

Seeing that nothing undue was about to transpire, she turned her attention to the fireplace and the mantelpiece, which was high up, safely out of casual arm-reach. It held a display of oddments and fancy mugs.

Rowan found a tall stool by the fire. She tested it with a fingertip, and it wobbled perceptibly. Seeing her intent, a local farmer leaped up. "Here, lass, I'll give a hand." He moved it to where she indicated and patted the seat, saying, "Up you go, lass, be glad to hold you," with a grin and an overly familiar wink.

"A little respect, man. That's a steerswoman," the innkeeper protested. The farmer backed off in surprise.

"It doesn't mean I couldn't use a hand," Rowan said, half annoyed, half amused. She climbed to the top of the stool while the farmer carefully s...


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 668 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey; 1 edition (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345461053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345461056
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #740,748 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Arthur W. Jordin on July 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
The Steerswoman's Road is an omnibus edition of the Steerswoman series, including the first two volumes. Steerswomen, and a very few Steersmen, are members of an order dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge. Although they are foremost navigators of the high seas, Steerswomen are also explorers and cartographers upon land as well as sea. With one exception, they are pledged to always answer any question put to them with as truthful a response as is possible within their own limitations. However, they also require anyone of whom they ask questions to respond in the same manner, upon penalty of the Steerswomen's ban; those under the ban do not receive answers from the steerswomen.
In The Steerswoman, Rowan is interested in some strange jewels which have been found distributed in an unusual pattern. She meets Bel, an Outskirter warrior, in a frontier tavern, asks her about a collection of such jewels made into a belt, and agrees to allow her to come along on the journey back to the Steerswomen Archives. On the way, they are attacked and almost killed by one of five men who had been wearing a wizard's uniform in the tavern. After almost being killed later in a burning inn, Rowan begins to think that some wizard has ordered her death.
In The Outskirter's Secret, Rowan and Bel travel to the Outskirts, where green vegetation is seldom found, but red and black grass and other exotic plants abound. They travel with Outskirter tribes and Rowan learns much about the fringes of human society. Outskirter life is hard and various forms of alien death surround them, including goblins and demons.
These novels were written over a decade ago and the sequel, The Lost Steersman, has been long awaited. Re-reading these stories reminds me why.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By James D. DeWitt VINE VOICE on September 19, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Rowan is a Steerswoman. If you ask her a question, she has to answer with the truth; if she asks you a question, you, too, have to answer. If you don't, no steerswoman anywhere will answer your questions. Under these simple rules, steerswomen have become the navigators, cartographers, explorers and researchers of their world. Knowledge is a steerswoman's life.
There is another group that holds knowledge on this world: the wizards. They can work magic. But they don't share their knowledge, they won't answer any questions, and they are under the steerwomen's ban. Early on, a reader will recognize the wizards' "magic" as simply technology, a technology that the wizards deny to the rest of the world.
"The Steerwoman's Road" is a compendium of two earlier books set in this world, "The Steerswoman" and "The Outskirter's Secret." In "The Steerswoman," Rowan is investigating bluish-black jewels that she has found in odd places along a long line across the Inner Lands of her world. For some reason, this simple investigation causes the wizards to attempt to kill her. Allied with Bel, a barbarian from the "Outskirts," the primitive part of the world, she narrowly escapes repeated attempts on her life. Finally, with the help of her sister steerswomen, Bel and an unlikely, even unwanted ally, she tries to solve the mystery of the wizards and their magic.
In "The Outskirter's Secret," Rowan and Bel journey beyond the edge of the known world, to and beyond the Outskirts in their quest to solve the mystery of the blue-black jewels and a possible fallen guidestar.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
I read the second novel in this volume, The Outskirter's Secret, when it came out back in the early 90s. When The Steerswoman's Road came out, I finally got the chance to read the first book in this series. I knew what Rowan discovers at the end of the first book, which took some of the mystery out if The Steerswoman. Despite the fact that the second book makes reference to events in the first one, it turned out that what really happened was different than the way I had imagined it, so if, like me, you somehow missed the first book and caught the second the last time around, it is still worthwhile reading.
Rosemary Kirstein is the kind of speculative fiction author that I like. She has the background of her world worked out, but doesn't need to include all the details in the story. There are some things that might feel contrived if Kirstein stopped to spend three paragraphs explaining them, but since she is willing to just present the world the way it is, I didn't have to look too closely at my willing suspension of disbelief.
If there are a few pieces in the first book that seem a little out-of-place, keep going. Things are not quite what they seem. If you are a regular reader of speculative fiction, by the end of the first book, you should have a few more pieces to the puzzle than Rowan does, and things will make sense to you in a way that they do not to her.
I read a lot of SF, and I have remembered The Outskirter's Secret all these years. I was very excited to see that there was finally a third volume - I had given up on it ever coming out, and this book clearly demands a sequel. Although The Lost Steersman wasn't quite what I was hoping for, I enjoyed returning to this world in this book and spending time again with Rowan and Bel.
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